December 27, 2009 Subject:
19th-Century books of quality illustrate only too well how once highly professional and skilled trades have today declined into little more than the merest of jobs.
It's wonderful to see a book such as this* and realize there was once a time when the graphics arts trades--along with their brothers, woodworking and cabinetmaking etc.--were truly respected professions. It was a time when making things with your hands was a serious and rigorous business--a time when standards of workmanship in the trades were far higher than they are today. Today, it would be almost impossible to have this book printed to this standard and quality and still have anyone afford to buy it. Even if today's very highest standards were used, the book would still not be the same as manufacturing is now very different--that 19th-Century 'patina' of excellence that the book exudes would be lost to any modern reproduction.
Those amazingly brilliant images--still exceptionally vibrant after 130 years or so--are printed with dyes and pigments that are no longer allowed to be used. Right, our over-protective, risk-averse society says we can no longer use them as they maybe harmful [especially if eaten].
Dyes and pigments are an excellent example of a technology that's done somersaults backwards over the last 50-80 years or so. As each dye or pigment was removed it was replaced with a safer one that was not only less stable but also usually its CIE colorimetric coordinates left the composite image with a lesser color gamut than did its predecessor. Have you ever noticed how all the blues in things printed or dyed these days have a sort of commonality about them--that sort of dull reflex blue look and mushy variants thereof? The range of blues is particularly affected. Think I'm exaggerating? Well, just go to a conservatory were cineraria are growing and look for yourself--you will see shades of blue in these blooms that you never thought your eyes were capable of seeing. It's depressing to think that 100 years ago we had more chance of accurately reproducing those colors than we do today. Similarly, anyone who has seen Vermeer's Milkmaid close up in the Rijksmuseum will attest how lackluster the blue is even in the very best printed reproductions.
The latest cost that I have for registering a dye or pigment is now about a decade old and that figure was about 6 million dollars. With amounts like that it's little wonder that most modern printing looks so ordinary.
...I wonder if those who scan such books have to wear protective clothes? I mean to protect them, not the books! :-)
* When it comes to craftsmanship, this book is not alone, there are many other fine examples of 19th-Century books on this Internet Archive.